Restorative Practices Cultivate Caring, Empathy, and Community in Schools 

March 14, 2018
Colored pencils next to a stack of books.

Restorative practices challenge teachers’ authoritative instincts in the classroom—but they can also transform the experience of teaching, and reduce stress and burnout.

Full transparency: when I get angry, my instinct is to get punitive. But I also coordinate restorative practices in Milwaukee Public Schools as a part of the Violence Prevention Program. So my challenge as an educator is to bridge those instincts with what I’ve learned about restorative practices.  
I taught high school in Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) for almost a decade before transitioning to my current position as a restorative practices coordinator. Early in my teaching career, I was fooled into thinking my default punitive response style got results. Using my position as the authority figure in the classroom, I often said things to young adults with the expectation they would comply, and those statements would be accompanied by threats. For example:

  • “Sit in your assigned seat immediately or you will lose points on today’s assignment!”
  • “If you interrupt my instruction again, I’ll kick you out of my classroom. Your choice!”
  • “You want to come late to my class with your breakfast?! Go finish it downstairs and come back with a pass! If you don’t like that, take it up with an administrator.”

I was blinded by belief that my compliance-driven disciplinary style was getting results. Students were seated. Students were afraid to disobey me. Disruptive students were avoiding my class—but disrupting the office, the halls, the cafeteria, or the parking lot instead. If an administrator walked into my room, it was quiet and orderly—but wholly devoid of genuine community.
My students’ behavior was rooted in fear and the avoidance of punishment.
You see, the burden of a punitive response style is this: only you can demand compliance in your classroom. What a stressful, isolating, burnout-inducing burden! What if it didn’t have to be that way?

Restorative practices help children and adults hold each other accountable and cultivate genuine community.

What if students could hold themselves accountable to one another? It is possible using restorative practices—a spectrum of intentional relationship and community development tools.
We start developing genuine community in classrooms by creating shared agreements rooted in the values of both teacher and students. One way to do this intentionally in our classrooms is to facilitate circles in which students can share their core values with each other.
In these circles, students are given the opportunity to explain who they are when they are the best version of themselves. As a member of the classroom community, the teacher does the same.
When we take the time to listen to one another explain who we are, we’re sending a powerful message: your story is important and you bring value to this community.
Based on my experience as a high school teacher, I think there are many students who feel their lived experiences are not valued by their schools or classroom teachers. As a result, they feel as if they don’t belong in their schools, and their subsequent behavior reflects this perspective.
Giving young people an opportunity to identify values and develop shared agreements allows a new reality to take root in these spaces:

  • This is our classroom
  • This is our school
  • My story matters
  • I belong in this place
  • Restorative processes help us build, maintain, and repair our relationships with each other

When teachers shift their paradigm, students deepen their empathy and trust, improving their engagement in the classroom community.

The process for repairing relationships is another critical piece of building and maintaining community. In a compliance-driven classroom model, from the teacher’s perspective, conflict is to be avoided at all costs to maintain order. When it comes to building relationships, though, conflict is necessary.
When we view conflict through a restorative lens, it becomes an opportunity to teach and learn the most important skill any human being could ever learn: empathy (and subsequently, trust). Navigating conflict actually helps us build trust in others. And conflict happens all the time in a classroom community.
If you’ve never taught before, take a moment to imagine standing at the front of a room full of 38 teenagers. It’s the first day of class and 76 eyeballs are watching you intensely. You’ve hung a large sheet of paper near your door on which the following rules are clearly visible:

NO Eating
NO Drinking
NO Cell Phones
As soon as you shut the door and prepare to address the class, your 39th student appears. She opens the door, walks into your class on her phone, sits down in the nearest desk, and opens a bag of chips. What do you do? Fear and anxiety begin to collide in your stomach as you realize the burden of compliance. If you cannot force this girl to comply, your rules are meaningless.
You recite your class rules loudly. She ignores you. From the back of the room, you hear snickers; more cell phones appear. How do you, as the teacher, navigate this conflict and maintain some sort of dignity for yourself and ideally for the student as well?

Navigating conflict restoratively involves three components:
  • self-reflection
  • language
  • vulnerability 

The self-reflection step is quite straightforward. Think about how you naturally respond when you have conflict with somebody you care about. Do you try to get your point across at any cost? Do you do what you can to make sure only one person’s needs are met in the situation?
Sit with that for a moment.

  • Use the pronoun “I”
  • Add a feeling word
  • Explain what happened

For example: “I feel frustrated when I spend time preparing a lesson and breakfast distracts you from learning the content. I really appreciate what you bring to our classroom community and want to make sure you’re getting what you need from me. I need you to be finished with breakfast before you come to class. What can I do to help you with that? I’m always available to listen or talk more when you’re ready.”
When delivered genuinely, the vulnerability this kind of restorative language models is immensely powerful. It requires that individuals speak honestly about how they feel and what they need. This vulnerability lays the foundation for a trusting relationship—and it’s the trusting relationship that is the cornerstone of genuine community.

We all deserve healthy, supportive communities—and restorative practices help us build them.

Consider the young woman who walked into the classroom out of compliance with your rules. What if she had walked into a room where a values circle was being facilitated? What if she sat in that circle? What if she had the opportunity to explain that when she’s the best version of herself, she’s respectful?
Her decision to violate the shared agreements becomes a powerful teaching opportunity. When you live in a functional, trusting community, you can more easily learn that the consequences of your actions impact the people you live with. Subsequently, it is your responsibility to fix your relationships with those people while receiving support from your community. The result of that process is trust. The more you trust the members of your community, the harder you will work to repair those relationships.
The restorative teacher is not fearful when that young lady disregards the shared agreements. The restorative educator embraces that conflict as an opportunity to teach trust, model empathy, and make the classroom community stronger.
The restorative educator—operating from shared classroom agreements—looks at the young lady with the rest of the class and invites her to be the best version of herself, because the community truly is not complete without her.
In education, I think there’s been a tendency to believe that restorative practices are inaccessible to most teachers and administrators. Some might think it’s a philosophy and way of being reserved only for those select few who naturally embody the work. My experience screams otherwise.
We all deserve to live and work in healthy, supportive communities. Restorative practices simply provide us with the tools to begin intentionally building those kinds of relationships with everyone. If we make those kinds of relationships our goal, healthy community is our reward.  
Like I said initially—my instinct is to get punitive when I get angry. But the longer I do this work, the more I understand the importance of reflection as a tool for identifying who I want to be as a teacher. The more I’m able to own the shortcomings of my natural response style, the easier it will be to follow a new, more restorative path. While changing the way we speak and listen might seem insignificant, it’s an awfully good place to start. 

A social studies teacher at Milwaukee High School of the Arts for nearly ten years, Drew deLutio now serves as the Restorative Practices Coordinator on the Violence Prevention Team. With other teachers and district social workers, Drew helped develop the first Restorative Practices course in Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) and subsequently taught and modified the class to accommodate MPS’ trauma sensitive schools initiative. As the Restorative Practices Coordinator, Drew works to implement Restorative Practices across MPS schools while simultaneously offering coaching and support to teachers and administrators.

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